The Happiness Project

Why Shopping at H&M Is Better Than at Bergdorf’s

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

I recently read a terrific new novel by Sally Koslow, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx . It has a very interesting premise, which I don’t want to give away, but I will say that it explores an important aspect of happiness.

I raced through the book because I was enjoying it so much (it’s packed with sharp social observation, plus it paints a wonderful picture of New York City), so only after I’d finished it did I realize that the book is a great examination of drift .

In the novel, Molly has a life with her husband and young daughter, and she’s also having an affair. She loves and hates her life with her husband; same with the affair. She can’t decide whether to divorce her husband and marry her lover or to end the affair, and she begins to drift in this state. Both fates have their appeal, and their cost.

Molly’s situation is resolved in a surprising way, which I won’t reveal, but it got me thinking about drift. I was interested to see what Sally Koslow would have to say about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Sally: Besides reading novels, which I love so much I decided to try and write one? Dancing, at which I most certainly do not excel, makes me giddy-happy if I’m hearing the right music, even if I’m alone in my kitchen alternating the same two moves my kids mock. So does escaping into a movie trussed-up with corsets and English accents or a well-written contemporary rom-com. Every time I watch Diane Keaton grin to herself while she’s pounding away on her computer in Something’s Gotta Give , a movie I can probably lip synch, I want to do the same.

Some activities make me happy once they’re over. I can’t say I adore running, but several times a week I take myself to the park for a long jog and invariably, when the rubber hits the road, my brain manufactures dialogue, plot points, and metaphors, and as e.e. cummings wrote, the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Procrastination screws with my happiness, even though I know I get a contact high from accomplishment. For me, productivity demands infrastructure. I’d never have been able to complete three novels in the last five years if I hadn’t joined a writing workshop. It gives me feedback, but most important, the group harnesses me to deadlines, without which I’d still be muttering, “Maybe I’ll write a novel!” Being a magazine editor taught me that everyone, for almost everything, requires deadlines. I’m kind of an evangelist about this. Now if only someone would give me a deadline for organizing my photographs.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you find very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is my all-time favorite play, and it inspired my current book, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx .

Is there anything that you see people around you doing that detracts a lot from their happiness?
Envy is the buzz-kill of happiness. This is a theme I’m exploring in my next novel, where four women’s friendships wig out when they start tripping over their envy. (The original title was The Schadenfreude Club— we just changed it to With Friends Like These , since not everyone knows the snarky German word, schadenfreude , which means taking pleasure in someone else’s misery.)

I know I’ve wasted too much time on envying people with more money or success. I wish I could say I’ve learned to short-circuit envy, but the best I do is try to minimize contact with happiness-suckers in favor of being with people I appreciate and who appreciate me. I got happier, for example, when my son switched from private to public school, where the parents took fewer vacations to Tuscany. I try to remind myself that while other women may look like they have it all, they may secretly covet X. For all I know, maybe every woman I envy secretly wants to be a novelist.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy—if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
I was a cliche high-school and college kid who no doubt looked happy enough but wrote yearning poetry and was often the girl at the party ready to cry. I was shy and didn’t instinctively understand how to make friends. My early role model was Lois Lane, and it helped to cast myself as a reporter for school newspapers, where I was forced to ask people questions. This practice helped, but took me only so far—when I, a North Dakota hayseed, moved to Manhattan to work on Mademoiselle magazine, the culture shock rendered me practically mute. I forced myself to observe women who had a knack for making friends and tried to model their behavior, down to noticing that it’s ordinary good manners to be friendly

During the last eight years, because of dumb luck I’ve lost two editor-in-chief jobs. This crashed my happiness, since I adored my work and believed I was put on earth to edit magazines. To keep my sanity, I started dabbling with writing fiction, which turned into novels—one lost job was running McCall’s , which got turned over to Rosie O’Donnell to start an eponymous magazine. That “you can’t make this stuff up” experience inspired my first novel, Little Pink Slips . I never expected novel-writing to become my new life’s work, and it has made me as happy as I’ve ever been.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy and didn’t?
One of my jobs came with—woo-hoo!—a clothing allowance. Although I’d been devoted to cheap-chic, when I got this perk I threw myself at the mercy of a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s and let her talk me into suits that made me looked like a lady senator, not Sally. I’ll never say money can’t buy a certain peace of mind, but this experience taught me that scoring bargains at H&M makes me happier than posh shopping, which leaves me feeling not pampered, but phony and rip-offed, a sure recipe for unhappiness.

* I’m a big fan of Alexandra Levit’s blog Water Cooler Wisdom , which is a terrific resource for “up-to-the-minute career advice from one who has survived the trenches,” so I was very pleased to see that she posted about the Happiness Project Toolbox .

* I send out short, free monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 24,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com . (sorry about that weird format—trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line.